Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Computers? Ugh.

When I went to MIT I intended to major in Course 16. I wanted to design space ships and be an astronaut! I had some curiosity about the computers at MIT, and I took the computer tour, but I didn't find it that interesting. The 9th floor machine room at Tech Square had a raised floor and rows of big disk drives and cabinets with flashing lights, but if you've seen one PDP, you've pretty much seen them all.

We stopped by the SIPB office which seemed to be some sort of computer club. There were nerds there. Ok, I'm a nerd and there's no doubt about that, but compared to these guys I was an amateur. These nerds looked strange and acted stranger. I clearly recall one homunculus that had the physical grace of a special-needs student and an ego that had to be turned sideways to fit through the door. I pictured myself a year or two in the future. I'd be sitting in the SIPB lounge with these people talking about being a professional nerd, and this would be the high point of my day. That wasn't a happy thought.

I discovered something important my freshman year. One of my friends was a serious aero-astro junkie. He lived and breathed the stuff. He had models of nearly every airplane that ever flew in World War II and could tell you who designed it, the manufacturer, what sort of engine it had, how many were constructed, how many were destroyed, and he knew weird trivia about them. He'd say things like “oh, that one is XYZ-22a, they only built 3 of them. They didn't have the engine ready for the first one, so they retrofitted a Rolls-Royce J11 into it....” Not only did I not know this sort of stuff, I didn't care.

The first class in course 16 was Unified Engineering. Unified has a well-deserved reputation for being a true killer course. The course was so complex that gave it two names and entries in the course calendar: ‘Unified I and II’, but it really was only one course. It was nasty. My friend, who took unified his freshman year, was doing these problem sets that involved air flow, fluid dynamics, non-linear dynamics, avionics, and all sorts of really hairy math. I was not looking forward to that.

I gave it a bunch of thought and came to the conclusion that course 16 was for people like my friend and not for me. I could probably learn it, but I'd never have the passion he had for it. Every little detail about flying things was exciting to him. I decided to major in something else.

Physics seemed a good possibility. I really liked physics in high school, and I got a perfect score on the AP physics exam. Undergrads at the 'tute are required to take at least 1 term of physics. You can take the basic freshman physics to fulfill the requirement, or you can take advanced freshman physics if you intend to follow that career. I took the latter.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I was blindsided by health problems my freshman year and nearly ended up dropping out of college. I couldn't complete the physics course. In hindsight, I probably should have taken a term or two off, but at the time I didn't see that as an option. A career as a physicist seemed off the table as well.

Well, I only ruled out a couple of courses, and there are a lot of them. I started thinking about electronics. I was always sort of interested in electronics. I had built a few things in high school and had a breadboard and soldering iron and I had done some mods to my TRS-80 to enable the expanded character set. I knew the resistor color code and a bit about diodes, transistors, and SCRs.

I wasn't too thrilled at the idea of the computer science part of course 6, though. The thought of databases and accounts receivable and VisiCalc left me cold. But I figured that I could plow through it. The computer course at Harvard wasn't as much fun as I'd hoped, but it wasn't very difficult.

In 1983 I signed up for 6.001 (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs) and 6.002 (Electrical Engineering).

1 comment:

David Morrison said...

Cliffhanger! More please.